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August 19. 2013 12:39AM

Hope that twin goals of saving land and lowering tax bills can dovetail


Kayakers paddle near the Deerneck boat launch at Lake Massabesic in Auburn. Manchester Water Works is looking for a buyer for 7,200 acres of forestland it has managed for more than a century. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


Massabesic land has 4 bidders

One of four bidders will likely end up owning some 7,200 acres of forested watershed that surrounds Lake Massabesic. They are:

• The Concord-based Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests has applied for a $2.2 million grant from the Department of Environmental Services to acquire the land. Grant proceeds would also be used for staff time, title work, property management and other costs associated with the purchase. The Forest Society said it isn't interested in non-conservation uses of the land — including Water Works structures such as dams and buildings, the commercial property and utility easements — and wants them stripped from the package.

• Green Crow, a company based in Port Angeles, Wash., with an office in Auburn, is the only for-profit company to put in a bid. It would acquire title to the land and transfer a conservation easement to a non-profit organization such as the Forest Society. Green Crow would treat the land as a working forest. It valued the land between $55,000 and $1.49 million, depending on the intensity of logging that would be allowed.

• The Deerfield-based Bear-Paw Regional Greenway is trying to construct a green corridor that includes towns around Bear Brook to Pawtuckaway state park. The organization controls about 4,000 acres now and said a price would be determined by an appraisal; it would need two years to raise the money. It is mostly interested in Water Works land north of Route 101, including Tower Hill and Clay ponds.

• The Exeter-based Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire, which said it has conserved 9,000 acres in southeast New Hampshire and owns 19 preserves. It has applied for a $1.06 million DES grant as well as a $200,000 Open Space Initiative grant. Even if it received the grants, it would have to undertake a fund-raising campaign to acquire the Water Works lands, the organization said.

MANCHESTER — Four organizations have put in bids to acquire 7,200 acres of forestland that surround Lake Massabesic, land that Manchester Water Works says it must relinquish after owning and managing it for more than a century.

Interested buyers include the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, two other land trusts and a Port Angeles, Wash., company that specializes in timberland investment and management. All four would have to agree to numerous deed restrictions, including protection to the Lake Massabesic watershed and access to the land by Water Works.

Manchester Water Works Director David Paris said the sale is needed to avoid property tax bills that amount to $670,000 a year to the towns of Auburn, Hooksett, Chester and Candia. Tax bills shot up in the late 1990s due to "feature values" such as the view tax, he said.

New Hampshire courts have ruled against efforts by Water Works to value the land as conservation land for tax purposes. Water Works has been unable to change tax laws to allow for the substantially lower valuations, Paris said.

"We're very reluctant going forward with this. We feel we've been great stewards for the last one hundred years of this watershed," Paris said. But he said the tax burden is difficult to justify when Water Works can sell the property to a buyer who will agree to preserve it in perpetuity.

The land sale will involve thousands of acres of well-known conservation located east of Manchester. It includes land with recreation trails around the lake, the Little Massabesic area and Tower Hill Pond.

The sale involves land used by a number of organizations and businesses — Massabesic Yacht Club, Sandy's Variety and Bonsai Restaurant at the Massabesic Traffic Circle, St. Peter Catholic Church and Fairhaven Baptist Church. Also included: two lakefront vacation homes, gravel pits, boat launches and a police shooting range.

According to the Water Works bid documents, bidders are encouraged to seek a water supply land protection grant from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

Deed restrictions would allow Manchester Water Works to retain much control over the property. For example, any subdivision and sale of land would have to be approved by Water Works, and Water Works would be able to access the property and its lakes and streams whenever it deemed necessary.

Also, it would have final say on forestry practices, and revenues such as timber harvesting would be shared with Water Works.

But Paris said some decisions, such as continuing leases and public access to the property, will be out of Water Works' hands. He noted that several of the organizations seeking to purchase the land have a commitment to access for recreational purposes.

"Down the road, what we're trying to accomplish is preservation of Massabesic in perpetuity," he said. "We understand selling the property means we'll no longer be able to make all the decisions on the property."

One of the potential buyers, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, keeps nearly all its forestlands open for public access, said spokesman Jack Savage. He said the Massabesic purchase would allow the organization to demonstrate its mission of sustainable forestry in the state's largest urban area.

"It's one thing to practice forestry in the hinterlands," Savage said. "At some point, it becomes important to demonstrate that work right where the people live."

Paris does not expect a decision will be made until the fall or early winter. Both the Board of Water Commissioners and Manchester aldermen will have to approve the sale.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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